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As Orange County cities entered their fifth straight day of protests against police violence Wednesday, a demonstration of around 3,000 peaceful young people in Garden Grove — mostly people of color — moved activists and community leaders to call it a historic display of cross-cultural and racial solidarity.

Throughout Garden Grove Boulevard, young Black people marched alongside young Asian Americans and Latinos, chanting “Black Lives Matter” with the same youthful energy that helped them hang out the windows of their cars with signs. 

Protests have popped up across the country in response to police violence against Black people and people of color in the U.S. — most recently, the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a Black man. 

But as much of Orange County hit the streets this week, Garden Grove’s protest marked the first to spring up in the county’s Little Saigon area, which also spans the cities of Fountain Valley and Westminster where protests were also scheduled for both on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. 

The marchers also passed by the city’s Koreatown.

Activists, community leaders and organizers in phone interviews the following day all struggled to recall the last time a demonstration of that scale had ever happened in Garden Grove. 

The march came partly as a result of efforts by Garden Grove High School students, including high school seniors Nicole Nguyen, an organizer for More Empowering Events Please (MEEP), and the school’s Black Student Union members like Heavyn Agu who led the march. 

Nguyen and Agu are a week away from graduating.

Justice Crudup, a 27-year-old Chapman University graduate whose activism for the Black community started in the Bay Area, helped lead the march as well. He called the scenes from Garden Grove on Wednesday “a pivotal moment.”

“Seeing so many young kids and non-Black people of color come together with us, to use their voice to speak up on injustices regarding the Black community, was something that was for me very telling as to where we’re going as a nation,” he said.

Nguyen and Agu in phone interviews remarked at the location and unity of the protest amid an at-times complex relationship between Black people and Asian Americans, including Vietnamese Americans, throughout the past several decades.

While Nguyen said anti-Blackness surfaces throughout some people — young and old — in her Vietnamese community, there’s an increasing trend of Asian and Vietnamese Americans becoming more cognizant of social justice issues and the work laid down by Black people for changing attitudes toward non-white people in the U.S.

Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

During the Vietnam War, Black antiwar activists called out a disproportionate amount of Black casualties overseas and were in agreement that the U.S.’ involvement was racist, expressing sympathy for Vietnamese people caught in the conflict.

And decades after the Fall of Saigon — leading to Vietnamese community footholds all over the U.S. —  the fallout of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 unified Vietnamese Americans with Black people in the eastern section of New Orleans in calling for increased FEMA assistance as recovery resources were scarce.

Agu said, as a Black teenager in a city like Garden Grove filled with other larger predominant racial groups, “it was eye opening to see not only a lot of young people Wednesday, but Asian Americans, Latinos, Black people, white people.”

“It was really powerful to see everyone speaking up,” Agu said. “There were all types of people speaking to the crowd, saying they needed to educate their families, friends.” 

Allison Vo, an organizer at VietRISE, said while the 2nd and 3rd generation Vietnamese American experience is at times marked by “challenging conversations at home” around social justice issues like racism toward Black people, she added people of older Vietnamese generations who came to the U.S. after the Vietnam War endured and protested mistreatment as well, as early as their times in U.S. military refugee camps.

“I had this conversation with my dad, when I came home from the protest and told him ‘this is what the police are doing,’ and he told me when he was in the refugee camps, he himself had engaged in multiple protests over similar things,” Vo said. “These narratives sometimes don’t surface from them due to trauma and not wanting to talk about the war.”

VietRISE Executive Director Tracy La said while the Black American experience predates that of Vietnamese Americans — and goes back hundreds of years through slavery and institutional racism — Vietnamese and Asian Americans in Garden Grove understand what it’s like to face poor police treatment and racial profiling. 

In the late 1990’s, the Garden Grove Police Dept. settled a class-action lawsuit brought by two Vietnamese American high schoolers, who said the police snapped photos of them as part of an ongoing campaign to crack down on gangs. 

The two teenagers at the time, Minh Tram Tran and Quyen Pham, were photographed by police while waiting outside a shopping strip, and were falsely accused of being gang members.

“This is a type of history that’s been quieted in Garden Grove,” La said in a phone interview after Wednesday’s march, adding that despite notions of anti-Blackness in older Vietnamese generations, there’s no shortage of people within that population who understand the message and take on the cause. “Yesterday I saw an older man with a sign advocating Vietnamese solidarity for Black lives.”

Hieu Nguyen, co-chair of the Viet Rainbow of Orange County (VROC), said that while  solidarity between Black and Asian communities is important, it’s also important to “center Black voices” throughout the movement.

VROC is participating in another protest organized by the Westminster College Black Student Union set for Saturday, Hieu Nguyen added. “We’re conscious about not centering ourselves and not taking away from the movement … really making sure we’re centering Black voices and Black leadership.”

“Individuals need to understand this movement is not about being selfish, it’s about being selfless,” Crudup said. “Black people have been battling racism for hundreds and hundreds of years, going back to slavery – I’m willing to die for this. I’m willing to stay past curfew, put myself on the line so my kids don’t have to experience this … I hope all communities of color understand that and feel the same.”

Below is a list of all upcoming protests.

In Santa Ana and Anaheim, the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to end systemic policing issues also struck a chord among the city’s Latino residents.

Both cities have had their share of community outcry over officer involved shootings, with Anaheim experiencing riots in 2012 that raised questions about the lack of city spending on youth programs.

It also led to the formation of the city’s police review board, making Anaheim the first in the county to have one.

Vo said Wednesday wasn’t just about coming together – “but also demanding police accountability and divestment from police budgets and investment in youth futures.”

The countywide protests are challenging local officials to rethink police accountability and law enforcement’s role in politics and systemic public safety issues as budget season rears its head. Cities every year spend more on cops over other areas like youth programs, parks and libraries. 

While city council members across the county have denounced Floyd’s killing, there are mounting questions for local officials over how far they will now go to prove solidarity on the issue as well as pursuing greater accountability for their local law enforcement agencies. 

On top of oversight, activists are calling for funding across local city budgets to be rerouted from police departments to youth programs, parks and libraries — aspects of public safety that community leaders say in the long run will reduce crime and systemic safety issues in underserved areas. 

On Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — facing outcry over a proposed budget that forked a majority of city spending to the Los Angeles Police Department — announced a major proposal to retool the budget, moving $250 million away from other departments, including police, toward health and education in the Black community and communities of color.

Vo said like Nicole Nguyen and Agu, she went to Garden Grove High School, not far away from a nearby library and the city’s police department.

“There is nothing more jarring than the fact there’s a police department behind a public school and library – all in one block we have these structures in play,” she said, denouncing the city’s prioritization of police spending and the heavy police presence that met the peaceful young people on Wednesday.

Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Nguyen said while some people denounced Wednesday’s police presence, “I don’t think the city ever anticipated the crowd being 3,000 strong.”

On arguments over the budget, Kim Nguyen said her city’s spending is comparably smaller than larger surrounding cities like Santa Ana and Anaheim.

“We don’t have one officer per 1,000 people, we have always operated on less,” she said, arguing that the national debate doesn’t have a cookie-cutter solution for every local municipality in terms of law enforcement versus youth spending. She also praised the police department, arguing her city’s officers are among the leaders in their focus on community policing.

 “I am not in any way saying Garden Grove is perfect, but we are doing great in trying to balance that pendulum as far as where that attention goes – I also believe if we want to focus on other programs, how do we do that? We need more money,” she added.

Despite that, she agreed there’s been a shift in the way people — especially youth — are tuned into those civic discussions.

 “Just to the level of the crowd size and to witness it for myself and be among everybody there … this was probably the single most epic moment of my life in Garden Grove, and especially in my four years in office,” she said.

“The youth are catching on,” Vo said. “There’s a reckoning coming.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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